The Female Explorer Who Taught Men a Lesson in Humanity

The Female Explorer Who Taught Men a Lesson in Humanity

Why you should care

Because you can be badass in a corset.

Mary Kingsley’s beloved father had just died. It was 1893, and the 31-year-old was the unmarried, childless heiress to a sizable estate. She could’ve just sat back, relaxed and learned to play the harp, but she took a one-way passage to the Congo and became one of the century’s most renowned explorers instead.

Her friends, fellow explorers and even the clerk who sold her the ticket on a steamer to West Africa tried to talk her out of it. “You will never come back,” she recalled them saying in her memoir. But a couple of years later, she came back and became the respected author of two instant bestsellers entitled Travels in West Africa and The Congo and the Cameroon. She even discovered a fish and named it the “Kingsley.”

With every book, Kingsley proved to the world that a woman was just as capable as any man of trekking through jungles and pushing a canoe down unexplored rivers.

Exploring sub-Saharan Africa was not what most expected from rich spinsters in the late 19th century. The continent was already crawling with famed male adventurers like David Livingstone and H.M. Stanley, sent by the world’s largest powers to find exploitable resources. But Kingsley cared little for colonialism. “The sooner the Crown Colony system is removed from the sphere of practical politics and put under a glass case in the South Kensington Museum, labeled ‘Extinct,’ the better for everyone,” she wrote. Instead of gold mines and the ivory trade, Kingsley was interested in the locals.

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Nineteenth-century British explorer Mary Kingsley (1862–1900) sitting in a canoe traveling on the Ogowe River.

Source Life Collection/Getty

That humanity is what really set her apart, says journalist Adam Hochschild. His book Leopold’s Ghost deals with colonial Congo, and he believes Kingsley was one of the first Europeans to write a book that “treated natives as humans.” While others saw natives as mere numbers, Kingsley went into the jungle with her own team of porters to document the natives’ lives as best she could. In the course of her travels in West Africa, this Victorian aristocrat — who refused to change her attire, despite the heat and humidity — documented the habits of polygamous and even cannibalistic tribes. And she didn’t judge them … much.

After all, she too was an outsider in the male-dominated world of exploration, and she sensed, even when she was repulsed by the local customs, that she had no right to impose her own. “One immense old lady has a family of lively young crocodiles running over her, evidently playing like a lot of kittens,” she wrote in Travels in West Africa. “The heavy musky smell they give off is most repulsive, but we do not rise up and make a row about this,” she wrote, noting how she felt wrong to intrude in these family scenes.

Also, Kingsley was used to being “the odd one.” Her father was a well-known biologist and travel writer, while her mother was handicapped and spent most of her life in her home. So while other ladies her age were learning how to sing and looking for a husband, she took care of her mother and devoured every book in her father’s library.

Like him, Kingsley was a brilliant writer with a delightfully British sense of humor that made her books extremely popular among Victorians back home. With every book Kingsley proved to the world that a woman was just as capable as any man of trekking through jungles and pushing a canoe down unexplored rivers. She once walked for miles with a broken ankle so as not to show weakness to her porters and wrote about the wonders of wearing Victorian fashions whilst trying to escape a hippo trap. “Save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fullness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort.”

To the 21st-century reader, her writings may seem far from enlightened. “Kingsley was a racist because she regarded African peoples and societies as innately different from and inferior to her own,” says Dane Kennedy, professor of British imperial history at Columbia University.

But she did oppose the role of missionaries and was a public supporter of the fight against slavery in the Congo after learning that the “success” of Belgian King Leopold’s colony was fueled by forced labor and abject human-rights violations. Unlike Livingstone and Stanley, both of whom lived to see their 60s, this pioneering adventurer later enlisted as a nurse during the second Boer War in South Africa, where she died of typhoid fever at age 37 while attending to Boer prisoners of war.

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